CHEYENNE, Wyo. – When November arrives in Wyoming, Republican electoral landslides are supposed to be as dependable as the cold west wind that screams down the Rocky Mountain front.
But with less than a week to the election, Wyoming finds itself in the middle of perhaps the closest congressional race in a generation, with a well-funded Democrat — Gary Trauner — running roughly even with Rep. Barbara Cubin, a six-term incumbent who has won by at least 13 percentage points since she first took the seat in 1994.
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"When I started this out ...," Trauner said, "I don't think anybody could have expected that we'd be where we are today."
Certainly not national Republicans who have spent $241,078 on the race and have enlisted the help of state's former congressman — Vice President Dick Cheney. He will be in Wyoming Saturday for a campaign rally.
Typically, Democrats aren't competitive in Wyoming:
— More than 61 percent of its registered voters are Republicans, with roughly 2.4 Republicans for every Democrat.
— Wyoming hasn't elected a Democrat to Congress since 1976, when Teno Roncalio won the last of his five terms. Cheney won the open seat in 1978.
— Although popular Democrat Dave Freudenthal is governor, the state's other four elected officials all are Republicans; Republicans outnumber Democrats 46-14 in the state House and 23-7 in the state Senate.
"Since I got here in 1970, the state has become more Republican and more conservative," said Oliver Walter, a political science professor and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Wyoming. "The Democratic congressional delegation was wiped out."
But Trauner isn't like the other Democrats who've tried to unseat Cubin. He generally supports Second Amendment rights — a popular stand in this gun-friendly state. He's a businessman who says reducing the national debt is a national security issue.
"He's been talking about the deficit and the debt, and implicit in that issue is the fact that the Republicans in Washington, D.C., are just spending too much money for most Republicans," said David Marcum, a political science instructor at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne. "I think that's an idea, this whole notion of fiscal conservatism, that people in Wyoming find very attractive."
And then there's Cubin — a conservative state legislator before being elected to the U.S. House in 1994. She's championed Wyoming mining and agriculture and fought to get hundreds of millions of federal dollars Wyoming is owed for abandoned mine cleanup.
The first gap in her armor appeared in July, when Trauner reported raising more money and having more cash on hand than Cubin.
"But it's really not a surprise to me that this is a close election," she said, adding that no other Wyoming representative has ever sought a seventh term.
Cubin didn't do herself any favors when she confronted Thomas Rankin, the Libertarian candidate on the ballot, after a televised debate in October. Rankin had criticized Cubin for taking money from former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's political action committee; Cubin has said she'll return the money only if DeLay is convicted of a crime.
Cubin says she told Rankin: "If you had said that to anyone else, they probably would have smacked you."
Rankin, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, says Cubin "walked over to me and said, 'If you weren't sitting in that chair, I'd slap you across the face."'
A poll taken in the days around the debate showed a close race.
Still, Cubin's a survivor — and a Republican in a state where that's still a huge advantage.
"I think she'll still win," Walter said. "One, the Republican Party is now pouring lots of money into the state. And with Cheney's endorsement, it's a lot for a Democrat to overcome."